Backcountry Touring 101

Excerpts from the Backcountry Byways series (Wilderness Press)

KNOW WHERE YOU'RE GOINGYou will need a good statewide map in addition to more detailed maps illustrating the area you’ll be visiting and the route you’ll be driving.

Each tour description in my books recommends readily available maps for finding your way. Typically I recommend more than one map. I find Benchmark Maps’ Road & Recreation Atlas state series, U.S. Forest Service visitor maps and—depending on locale—National Geographic/Trails Illustrated maps indispensable. These maps often will include other useful information about the area’s natural and human history, regulations, campgrounds, picnic areas and historic sites. They often differentiate between public and private lands as well. Forest Service maps may be the best all-purpose maps. But some that are still published are quite old, dating to the 1980s and early 1990s. In some cases, different national forest maps will depict the quality of the same road differently. So when buying national forest maps, be sure they are the latest available. Maps of various kinds can be purchased at Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management offices, bookstores, information centers and outdoor recreation equipment stores.

Go over your maps before you begin the drive. Become familiar with sights and landmarks to watch for along the way. As you travel, keep track of your progress to avoid missing important turnoffs, places of interest and side trips.

Don't expect to find road signs. The agencies that manage backcountry roads and the wildlands they cross do post signs, but they often don't last long. Vandals, especially the gun-toting kind, often make short work of them. If you reach a point where there are several routes to choose from and none has a sign, it's usually best to follow what appears to be the most heavily used route.

Various companies produce topographic maps on CD-ROM. I've been using National Geographic/Trails Illustrated's statewide sets. If you do a lot of backcountry traveling, CD-ROM map sets are useful indeed for plotting a route, pinpointing GPS waypoints, checking elevations, and for seeing where you've been if you used a GPS unit to mark waypoints or record a route.

Global Positioning System units are not necessary, but they certainly are useful. I recommend them. You can more easily find specific locations if you know its GPS coordinates. You also record routes and waypoints before you leave home and upload them to the unit for use on your trip. They enable you to precisely keep track of where you've been and to find your way back. I use two Garmin GPS units, a small Legend that I can easily carry in a pocket and a "V" model that is mounted on my dashboard for driving.

To identify GPS coordinates, I use the Garmin default datum, position settings and coordinate formats: WGS84 datum, and the "hddd°mm.mmm" coordinates format to display latitude and longitude in degrees and decimal minutes. Garmin units place the "N" and "W" symbols at the start of latitude and longitude coordinates (they're frequently placed at the end of the coordinate in other contexts), so just for consistency I also present them in that format. Most of the coordinates cited in the routes are taken from my CD-ROM maps using the NAD83/WGS84 datums, which produce essentially the same results, and degrees and decimal minutes. Whatever GPS unit and mapping program you choose, you must use those settings or you will end up with different positions. Since these are driving guides, not geocaching or bushwhacking guides, you should have no trouble locating the correct roads and junctions.


Tony Huegel is the author of the acclaimed Backcountry Byways series of books, published by Wilderness Press. Find out more about his books at backcountrybyways.com.

Published: 3 Jul 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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